The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, September 6, 2013

Pork Chop Hill

No soldier wants to die. But what about as a war nears its end? The end of the fighting may only be days away, maybe even hours away. So goes the background for the underrated Korean War drama from 1959, Pork Chop Hill.

It's April 1953 and both American and North Korean/Chinese commanders have agreed to a cease fire with the two sides meeting at Panmunjom. The negotiations though are moving along at a frustratingly slow pace with little being resolved. Near the front lines, the fighting rages on with Lt. Joe Clemons (Gregory Peck) and his King Company awaiting orders, supposedly to withdraw as the fighting dies down with negotiations picking up. The orders though are just the opposite, orders to move forward and take Pork Chop Hill, a worthless hill that's been lost and regained countless times. Now, the Chinese are in possession, but it is a spot on the line that's been deemed very important to negotiations. Clemons assembles his weary company, moving forward to take a hill that holds no military value.

Dubbed the Forgotten War, the Korean War pales in comparison to both World War II and Vietnam in terms of theatrical films released about them. From director Lewis Milestone (A Walk in the Sun, Halls of Montezuma, All Quiet on the Western Front), 'Hill' is a generally forgotten war film that certainly deserves better. It is similar in a lot of ways to 1962's Hell is For Heroes -- even using an eerily similar score from Leonard Rosenman -- and is based on a true story, the battle for Pork Chop Hill. It was filmed in black and white, a highly effective shooting technique, giving everything a sparse, cold and vacant look. Why isn't it remembered as the near-classic that it is? I've got no idea.

What jumped out at me on my recent viewing was the cynicism and darkness that's evident throughout. More surprising? It was made with cooperation from the U.S. Army which in itself isn't too surprising. It's that in exploring the battle, 'Hill' at times shows the complete ineptitude of the American commanders. Assaulting the hill, Clemon's company is put on the grid when American spotlights actually shine right on them in the dead of night. Other companies are given wrong orders, ranging from just plain wrong to misleading. Once King Company is in position, the rear command is genuinely confused, thinking they're fighting a mop-up action when in reality, they're holding on by their fingernails with limited ammunition, food and water. At one point, an U.S.O. photographer is sent up the hill to get photos of an American victory because the folks back home need to see an American win. Peck's reaction is priceless, a commander at wit's end who doesn't know what else to say.

This is an honest criticism of headquarters that's based in reality, and for a 1959 audience, it seems light years ahead of its time. If I didn't know better, it sounds like a Vietnam War movie like Platoon or Apocalypse Now more than a major studio release from 1959. Leading the way is the always reliable, always impressive Gregory Peck. His performance reminded me some of his Oscar-nominated turn in Twelve O'Clock High 10 years earlier. His Clemons is an effective commander simply trying to follow orders and get as many men through the battle unscathed as is possible. Even he is pushed to his limits as one bumbling order after another comes through, the commanders refusing to acknowledge that the battle isn't going as they expected. It's an understated part, but an emotionally effective one. We see the wear and tear on his face, his reassuring, confident tone slowly being worn down.

Beyond Peck though, 'Hill' is noteworthy for its supporting cast of rising and future stars. Harry Guardino and George Peppard play Forstman and Federson, two buddies lugging a machine gun around the hill. Rip Torn plays Lt. Russel, commander of the relief company assigned to help out King Company. 'Hill' is also one of the first war films to show integrated units, Woody Strode playing Franklin, a private fed up with the war, and James Edwards as Cpl. Jurgens, one of Clemon's most dependable, trustworthy men. Also cool casting is George Shibata as Lt. Ohashi, a Japanese-American soldier, Clemon's close friend and one of his platoon commanders. Also look for Norman Fell, Gavin MacLeod, Robert Blake, Biff Elliott, Martin Landau, Harry Dean Stanton, Clarence Williams III and several other familiar faces rounding out King Company's roster.

Clocking in at 97 minutes, a majority of 'Hill' is spent in the trenches and bunkers with King Company, a few asides here and there showing the negotiations of the cease fire. This is a movie interested in the nuts and bolts of the battle, the flanking movements, the reserve companies, the crossfires and preparations for counterattacks. It never gets bogged down though, the battle scenes uncomfortable and unsettling in their reality. It isn't graphic violence here, but that doesn't mean it's not hard to watch. Add in the psychological warfare of a Chinese broadcaster bombarding the American troops with propaganda, and you've got quite the battle here. It's not just bullets and soldiers anymore, but the effect it has on the soldiers' heads too. A great war movie, one that deserves more of a reputation/following.

Pork Chop Hill (1959): *** 1/2 /****


  1. Great timing! Just checked this one out from the library.

  2. Seen it before or is that a first-time viewing?

  3. I saw on TV it as a kid. Rewatching it today, I only recognized the scene with the search light and the line about bayonets being a Stone Age tactic in a push button war.

  4. I saw this for the first time only a few weeks ago and it has grown on me more since. Peck was much more impressive in this than 'Guns of Navarone'. Part of me thinks they either missed an opportunity for comparison/contrast juxtaposition by making the negotiations more intense in style and a bit more integral in quantity (forming some kind of emotional link tween a negotiator gor Peck w/o ever meeting) in a way that wouldn't ruin pacing, or just leaving it out all together would have been better.